The Cavaliers dispatched of the Sacramento Kings Friday night with ease, building a 10-point first quarter lead from which they never looked back in a 101-90 victory.
The game featured the return of LeBron James from a one-game absence (to nurse a sprained wrist) and extended the Cavaliers season-long nine-game win streak. While in a certain sense it wasn’t much to watch, that’s a testament to the team’s consistency.
This is a big difference for a team that couldn’t put more than a quarter and a half of quality defense together, and which frequently seemed determined to play down to the level of the competition. Since LeBron’s return that focus and consistency has held – even through his one-game absence. There’s no doubt this team’s coming together on a number of levels
Of course, Kyrie Irving’s not going to lay double nickels on a championship contender every night. Indeed, Cavaliers Coach David Blatt was concerned about there being a let-down. Instead they held their opponent to a season-low 35.7% shooting. He feared a let-down against a weaker opponent after the high of the Wednesday’s Portland win without LeBron.
“Our advantage against Portland was that they were such a good team and the guys were really really fired up to play and knew they had to step up without LeBron playing,” Blatt explained during the post-game presser. “Before the game I was worried about a lack of sharpness because of the last win and the special situation and I’m glad the guys came out and played. We didn’t play perfectly on offences but we played with enough purpose to beat that team.”
Of course, “that team” would be the Sacramento Kings, which in the Eastern Conference would be playoff contenders, but in the West aren’t even realistically in the race. Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
You want to see what can happen when you fire the coach? Look no further than the Kings. Coach Mike Malone had the Kings at 11-13, including overtime losses to Houston at home, Phoenix on the road, a one-point loss to Memphis, a five-point home loss to the surging Pistons and a home loss to the Bucks. Those are some very respectable showings. Since his firing the team’s 5-15 and have lost their last eight in a row.
Which is a long way of saying this win won’t be more than a blip in a post-season montage, but it was a good win nonetheless. Seeing the team show up defensively on a night when (after the first quarter) the offense wasn’t running all that smoothly was a good thing. Typically the Cavs have gotten flustered by their offensive struggles and it has showed on defense. Just a sign of the team’s growing maturity and togetherness
Another sign is at the free throw line. Nobody has allowed fewer free throws than the Cavaliers for the season. But during their nine-game win streak they’re fifth. How does a team go from never fouling to fouling at a top five rate? By competing defensively and physically with other teams.
“It’s never a good sign when you’re last in the league in free throws allowed,” said Blatt after the game. “That in a nutshell is one of the reasons we’re defending better. Not the mere fact that we’re fouling more and giving up more free throws, but the fact that we’re being so much more aggressive and some much more physical and not allowing easy shots or easy baskets, and there’s a lesson to be learned from that.”
Though the offense wasn’t particularly smooth it was at least egalitarian. Everyone got their shots and everybody passed from Blatt’s so-called “heads of the table”: Love (17 shots, 3 assists) and James (16 & 7) to JR Smith (12 & 5) and Kyrie Irving (13 & 6).
LeBron had another poor turnover night, as did the whole team, with 16 miscues resulting in 18 Kings points. Were it not for the turnovers and second chance points (17), the Kings would’ve been embarrassed like Charlotte the other night.
We’ll keep it short with another game tonight, but there were a couple things we want to note. A couple times the Cavaliers ran the offense through Kevin Love in the high post. This is a little bit unnatural in that it makes LeBron and Kyrie play off the ball, but as you can see here, LeBron’s size and quickness makes him difficult to guard on baseline screens. This takes advantage of Kevin Love’s terrific passing ability something the team’s barely begun to exploit.
On a similar note, Kevin Love had a fine game, particularly in the first quarter when he scored 16 of his 23 points on 7-9 shooting. Anyone who has followed the Cavs knows that Love gets most of his points in the first 12 minutes (7.4 of his 17.2 points/game). What’s more important was just that he had a good night shooting. He’s struggled during the win streak shooting 38% and 30% from 3, below his season marks of 43% and 33% respectively.
Last night he got hot quick — and though he was 2-8 the rest of the way, the fact that he continued to be a part of the offense in the second and third quarters is a good sign. (The starters barely played the fourth quarter.) Here’s four of those first quarter Love hoops.
The last one is particularly interesting. Love picks Kyrie then slides down to the corner as Mozgov pops out to screen his trailing man leaving him open for the (semi-) corner 3. The Cavs have really been doing much more picking and screening the last couple weeks as they seem to be adding more wrinkles to the offense every few days.
Of course, one doesn’t need much offense when you have someone like LeBron to do stuff like this.
LeBron did a nice job of modulating his ball dominance. At halftime he had 7 points on 5 shots and three assists. He’d add eight more in the second, but played much more without the ball or the offensive focus and seemed comfortable with it. In this way J.R. Smith seems almost the perfect complementary piece. A guy who is streaky hot, has no problem burying Js late in the shot clock and even creates for others. GM David Griffin got a steal in Shumpert, Mozgov and Smith for Dion Waiters and a couple late firsts.
Before going on, we have to draw attention to this ridiculous outlet pass from Kevin Love to LeBron James in the frontcourt – while still in the air. I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like this.
Teams have gotten wise to the Cavaliers leaking out and are getting back to stop it. The Blazers in particular – because they’re a fundamentally strong basketball team – did a particularly good job of this. But as the defense picks up these should be more fastbreak and easy opportunities.
Tonight the Cavaliers take on the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. It will be a homecoming for Kevin Love, but as he forced his way out, one can’t imagine it’s going to be all wine and roses. The relevant fact is that the Timberwolves are atrocious. They’re 4-28 in December and January, but one of those wins came against the Trailblazers. Any team can lose their focus, and obviously Cavaliers former 1st round picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins will have special cause to step it up.
As it is, the Cavaliers are just a game and a half in back of a faltering Chicago Bulls team for the fourth slot in the Eastern Conference and homecourt advantage on the number five team in the first round. Chicago doesn’t play again until Wednesday, against the Houston Rockets. Should they lose and the Cavaliers win tonight and Monday against the 76ers and they’ll be tied for fourth when the Clippers come to town on Thursday.
I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game on tonight. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my game analysis Sunday in the Cleveland Scene blog.